Belonging Somewhere

05/01/2023 02:44 AM By Lisa Anderson
Matt Wardell
Matt Wardell
Story by Jodi Anderson • Photos by Joshua Jacobs

Belonging Somewhere

Symphony Conductor on Building Community Through Empathy

Even though Matt Wardell, CEO and Artistic Director of the Reilly Arts Center and beloved conductor of the Ocala Symphony Orchestra, had been a percussionist since middle school, he never played in a symphony during his school career. “I banged on things. I loved it. I thought I wanted to be a middle school band director for a long time, mainly because I had such an affinity for my band director.”

He went to a music festival, right after high school, where he played in his first orchestra. Performing Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” changed his life. The piece tells the story of a man who is suffering from unrequited love and takes opium to end his life. Instead, he hallucinates that he has killed his love and ended up in hell. Matt was intrigued. “It’s crazy. I remember thinking, ‘Well, that’s a little different than what I thought about Beethoven or Mozart. That dude seems like a real dude.’”

Although Matt played only a chime for that piece, it was the first time that he felt he was a part of something bigger. “That experience, I felt like I belonged somewhere. That sort of started the orchestra [thing].”


Because of his profile in the community, Matt’s story is familiar. He passed up a scholarship to the University of Memphis and started touring around Florida with a band. Tired of the night life, Matt emailed the University of Florida (UF) and entered their music program. He eventually completed a masters and pursued a doctorate. 

“When I first went to UF, I really thought I wanted to be a composer,” Matt says. “because I had dabbled in that for a while. And the problem for me was that I heard so much great music from other people, I was like, ‘Well, I can’t do that.’ Now that I feel a little more stable for a second, I’ve been thinking about composing more.”

Matt has composed pieces for Ocala Symphony Orchestra to perform, including a soundtrack to the silent film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “When I’m writing for a performance, there’s usually a story I want to tell, a feeling or a place that can inspire.”
Matt Wardell

The Importance of Empathy 

Matt admits that, sometimes, he has a hard time connecting with music, especially when he is struggling with his mental health. “I feel like I’m not participating with it in a way that I should be. I’m not doing enough or I’m not good enough. Just that whole depressive cloud messes up that music for me. That’s why I just like going to the piano, because that’s not that.

“I deal with depression and anxiety and things, and my favorite thing to do when I feel like that is to just sit down at the piano and play,“ he explains. “That’s sort of pure emotion, trying to speak through whatever you’re doing.”

Matt also deals with the other side of depression: mania. “When I’m the opposite, when I’m on the upswing of really feeling good, I get a lot of work done. I get so much work done. I work in spurts. That’s when I tend to engage the most.”

Matt recognizes that, regardless of how he feels, he still has a job to do, but his experiences have made him a better conductor. “Me dealing with my own stuff helped me be way more empathetic with the musicians I work with, because I know a lot of conductors who are not empathetic, which is crazy because all we do is empathy. All we’re doing is taking someone else’s feelings from 200 or 300 years ago or yesterday and then we’re trying to read that and show it to other people, so if you can’t find empathy—or at least sympathy—something’s wrong. I feel like you’re not effective.” 

That empathy has also made him a favorite with audiences. “What I really love, especially about the audience that we’ve built in Ocala, is they know us really well. They know I’m not a monocle and top hat type.

“That divide that you feel with some orchestras,” Matt continues, “where there’s the musicians and the conductor, who doesn’t even talk. He just comes out and looks at you and turns around and kind of just goes away when that’s over. We’re not quite like that.”

A Love for Teaching

Matt has had the opportunity to teach all kinds of students, most recently at Georgia Tech over the summer of 2022. “Students who are in school to be music teachers or musicians, my goal is to help them be better musicians and better teachers. When it was students that were there for another reason, I still want to teach them to be better musicians, but I just kind of realized I want to support them for what they’re doing.”

Georgia Tech offers music classes but no degree programs. “It’s got all engineers and other [people who] want to keep music in their lives,” Matt describes. “So, it was a totally different vibe from my perspective. It was really cool.”

Matt did have to rethink his role as a conductor and his purpose for being there. But he kept the three questions he always asks his students as his guideposts: 1) What are you passionate about? 2) What can I do to make you better and reach those goals? 3) What can you do to impact the world around you? 

If music was helping engineering students “do their thing” better, then Matt wanted to help them. “That’s why I love teaching.”

Memories of Music

The first time Matt conducted with the Ocala Symphony Orchestra, they performed “Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor.” “Basically, ‘9’ is one of those pieces that’s kind of up on a pedestal a little bit, and I remember—we were at the Queen of Peace at the time—I remember leaving the…altar area and going to the back and just being like ‘man…’ It was an emotional moment. It was finished, and it felt really good and fun.”

Matt has also partnered with Chad Taylor and Insomniac Theatre to stage Broadway musicals. “I love working on the stage. It’s more of that connection between people, especially when there’s words involved. I think of Sweeny Todd a lot. Even Avenue Q, where I wasn’t necessarily a conductor conductor…” For that show, he worked the sound booth.

His approach to directing voices is a little different than his approach with players of musical instruments. Here, he intentionally employs empathy, because the type of day a singer has had can greatly impact their performance. “It doesn’t mean we don’t get frustrated, but you always leave room for that.”

He loves hearing the audience’s reaction to the performance and will often stand in the background afterwards to listen to commentary. “I just love them going, ‘Oh, did you hear that one piece? Oh my gosh! I thought that flute was going to catch on fire!’ They say wild things. And I just love the chatter, because you know you’ve given something away.”
Learn More

Watch the full interview with Matt Wardell and Chad Taylor on May 5, 2023, on YouTube, or find us on your favorite podcast app!

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